starring Dick Van Dyke, Sally Ann Howes, Lionel Jeffries, Gert Frobe
screenplay by Roald Dahl and Ken Hughes
directed by Ken Hughes
by Walter Chaw Released the same year as the marginally less excrescent The Love Bug, Ken Hughes's Chitty Chitty Bang Bang helped mark 1968 as not only one of the most tumultuous years in American history, but also one of the most puzzling in regards to its mainstream kidsploitation fare. Why bad entertainment involving anthropomorphized automobiles erupts during corrupt regimes (see also: "My Mother the Car", from LBJ's term (1965), and Reagan's British Trans Am in "Knight Rider" (1982)) is one of those things someone should ponder someday.
Caractacus Potts (Dick Van Dyke) is an eccentric inventor who hates Truly Scrumptious (Sally Ann Howes) because it's convention for people who love one another to start out by hating one another--meaning, of course, that one day I'll fall in hopeless love with Paul Walker. Potts is a single father of two insipid towheaded moppets, Jemima (Heather Ripley) and Jeremy (Adrian Hall), who, because they've suffered the tragedy of mysteriously having no mother in a children's film, are horribly spoiled, opinionated, and sparkless. To please his bland spawn, Potts refurbishes an abandoned racecar, the titular Chitty, with explanation neither made nor required as to why two young children appear to love a burned-out chassis.
Easily the most interesting parts of the film--possibly the only interesting things about it aside from its general awfulness--are a confrontation between Toymaker (Benny Hill) and terrifying pedophile prototype Child Catcher (Robert Helpmann) and the revelation that Spielberg stole an entire scene and chunk of dialogue regarding a village without children for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. The songs are horrible (the title theme is presented as a long-shot of the front of the car driving along a dirt road; Howes's love ballad has her traipsing around a lawn; "Truly Scrumptious" has the kinder-noir all but clasping their hands in front of them; and that mountain-lullaby thing is absolutely eye-clawing), the grandparents of the stuff churned out by Phil Collins for Disney nowadays; the special effects are horrible; co-screenwriter (and ace short story maestro) Roald Dahl should probably not have been left alone with children nor scripts for children's films; and the premise of a heroic car that mysteriously sprouts wings and a rubber raft identifies the source of much of George Lucas's "inspiration" for R2-D2 suddenly sporting rocket propulsion in Episode II. It's not so much the stupidity that grates, it's the bellicose arbitrariness of the exercise that presumes, nay, relies upon a certain degree of undemanding acceptance from its gaffed, intellectually and emotionally underfed audience.
Even if Ian Fleming weren't responsible for both, buried within the fetid corpse of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang would be a maggot of understanding for what it is that still fuels the fascination with the James Bond franchise: an adolescent obsession with gadgetry and automobiles, in addition to a puerile misogyny that sexualizes women while rendering them attractively impotent and a juvenile wish-fulfillment mechanism that seeks a sort of ironic order through the fostering of anarchy and chaos. Again like most of the Bond films, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is an overlong, prosaic series of disconnected set-pieces meant mainly to showcase the limitations of its supporting cast. It's really a fresh circle of hell to revisit childhood favourites to almost inevitably discover that, as a child, one is indubitably an idiot. Take Chitty Chitty Bang Bang as a cautionary tale on a par with Pete's Dragon, Condorman, and Unidentified Flying Oddball--a warning to leave well enough alone to posterity.
Still, fans of the film, and they are legion, will be charmed by MGM's loaded, two-disc Special Edition, finding its way to DVD in a transfer as beautiful as any for an archive piece--penance, of a sort, for MGM's previous pan-and-scan (and curiously scrunched-looking) DVD release. Its anamorphic widescreen transfer comes close to preserving the original Super Panavision70 aspect ratio (about 2:1 vs. this presentation's 2.20:1) while presenting colours with pleasing warmth and images with a wondrous clarity largely free of grain and edge-enhancement. The problem with seeing the film with all of its visual information restored is that it highlights the ways that an intricate set design can be undermined by genuinely bad, static direction.
Fans of fullscreen crops (idiots, in other words) get theirs on the flipside of the double-sided, dual-layered first disc. The audio track is a remastered Dolby Digital 5.1 mix that relegates almost all the information to the front channels; musical interludes sound nearly as tinny and thin as the children staring robotically ahead as they karaoke each number. It's fine, but it does cause one to wonder if the only reason for its existence is for that little Dolby symbol to grace the packaging. A sing-along feature is a nifty idea but better known as a "pain-along" in this instance, while a sneak peek at the fresh hell of a stage version of this abortion evokes the modern spectacle musical born of Andrew Lloyd Weber's awful stuff as the soul mate of the Hollywood spectacle film. It rounds out the extras on the first disc.
The second disc features a new, 25-minute documentary, "Remembering Chitty Chitty Bang Bang", featuring Van Dyke waxing nostalgic; the 9-minute "A Fantasmagorical Motor Car", wherein its actual owner waxes rhapsodic; and three contemporary featurettes that find me waxing in varying shades of despondent. Van Dyke's revelation that he came to the project post-Mary Poppins because of how much he liked the soundtrack says a little something to me about either the kind filter of time or the disingenuousness of a guy looking to cash in on the chance that lightning might strike twice, but Howes is no Julie Andrews, and Van Dyke is, well, no Van Dyke.
The platter continues with an audio-only Sherman Brothers demo for thirteen of the film's horrifically not-catchy tunes that are sort of better than the versions that find their way into the finished product, if only for their sparseness; an extensive trailer gallery including the theatrical, French, and five television spots; a photo gallery; a read-along storybook like the paper version included in the gatefold/slipcase presentation; two point-and-click, kid-oriented DVD games that drive sentient beings nuts; a colouring book (don't ask--it's a DVD-ROM function to print); and previews for The Muppet Christmas Movie, Second Star to the Left, Christmas Carol The Movie, A Freezerburnt Christmas, Good Boy!, Hamilton Mattress, "Hi5!", Miss Spider's Sunny Patch Kids, and Just 4 Kicks. Sufficed to say that I'd rather eat glass than look at any of them--save your children. If they'll like anything, present to them something not soul-damaging rather than something that'll keep them reasonably quiet for two-and-a-half hours. Originally published: December 2, 2003.